The complexity of the interplay between psychiatric disorders and demon possession has always fascinated me.
I’m certainly no expert in such matters but I have sadly noted some elements of Christendom frequently labelling the mentally ill as demon possessed at one end of the spectrum, and others completely denying the reality of any form of spiritual influence at the other.
It deosn’t surprise me that a Humanist group in Canada should pounce upon the issue of exorcism, as it is a great arena for them to oversimplify and overgeneralise the Christian positions with comments such as:
“There isn’t a lot evidence to suggest that these claims for demonic possession are anything more than an association with known medical and psychiatric illnesses,” Trottier said.
“We can’t have unlicensed and unregulated individuals performing what essentially amounts to medical or psychiatric treatment.”
Of course, the truth is, that in the case of the Catholic Church in particular, there is a fantastic amount of awareness of psychiatric disorders presenting themselves in what some would be quick to label as ‘demon possession’. And this nuanced and cautious Catholic position is nicely articulated by the Bishop responding to the Humanist group:
“In Jesus’s ministry, there were exorcisms and so it’s not something we can lightly dismiss,” Bishop Don Bolan with the Saskatoon Roman Catholic Diocese said Tuesday.
The church recognizes the importance of psychology and medicine to assist those struggling with mental illness, said Bolan, adding that prayer and spiritual support are part of the healing process.
“We are seeking as a diocese to determine how to pastorally respond to people in all kinds of situations of mental distress,” he said, but looking for a priest trained in performing exorcisms isn’t a priority.
“I’ve been a priest for nearly 21 years and I have never been a part of an exorcism, never heard a direct report of an exorcism,” Bolan said.
Interestingly, the Director of the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association had this to say:
He said, however, there are rare circumstances where an exorcism might be helpful as an additional intervention, depending on the type of mental illness or psychiatric problem.
“In the context of a person’s religion or their culture, it might be demonstrated that some sort of intervention, like an exorcism may be some help with that.”
Now it’s very interesting to me that a mental health expert should mention exorcism as an ‘additional intervention in a psychiatric problem’. Initially I thought this may be problematic, but why should it be?
If the psychiatric patient is convinced that this type of spiritual intervention would be of benefit, then why should it not be provided if wanted and needed? I’ve certainly sought spiritual intervention when mentally unwell.
If the patient does believe that they are demon possessed and this is part of their psychiatric condition, then what harm is an exorcism anyway? Indeed, it could potentially be most beneficial to the patient and simply constitutes a holistic approach to the healing process. We are after all complex beings and a truly holistic healing approach is to address mind, body and soul. The holistic approach is certainly recognised within the nursing profession. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the holistic approach is more neglected in the psychiatric world and the spiritual element almost cast aside. In fairness to psychiatrists, this may be due to the prevalence of religious delusion they encounter.
Of course, even when I say the word exorcism, in the minds of some it will conjure up the image of some mad priest, shouting and hollering and generally behaving like some sort of maniac. But the truth is that it’s nothing like the films portray, at least within the Catholic world, and if you’re interested, you can read the Catholic Rite of Exorcism here.
I was interested to read on New Advent that the very first instruction prefixed to this Rite is none other than:
Possession is not lightly to be taken for granted. Each case is to be carefully examined and great caution to be used in distinguishing genuine possession from certain forms of disease.
From what I’ve heard there are very few trained Catholic exorcists as this is immensely specialised and rare; and the first port of call in any case, would be to work in conjunction with the psychiatric services.
So much for stereotypes and generalisations.